Those KKK Records

by Brad Kay

I have collected about a dozen of those Gennett KKK records, and have taken the trouble to listen closely to them. They deserve a detailed monograph. But briefly: The big surprise, when you boil down the content of the songs and the occasional speech, is that there is not one single word leveled against blacks. The main item on the Klan's agenda was to stop the massive immigration that had been going on since the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. It was especially the influx, from 1880 or so, of East European Catholics and Jews with their "foreign" ideas that roused the Klan to such heights of song and story. Add to this paeans of loyalty to the good old U.S.A. and to the Klan itself, and you have the basic package. Most of the music is filched from well-known Christian hymns (i.e., "Onward Valiant Klansmen" = "Onward Christian Soldiers" etc.), though some are originals. There's even a comic element in songs like "The Stuttering Klansman." My personal favorite amongst the ones I've heard is "Why I Am a Klansman" (KKK 75003). The tune is jaunty and jolly, and the record is something of a production with a string section, vocal quartet and soloist. The whole thing is catchy and perverse enough to be the granddaddy of "Springtime For Hitler."

The Klan was the victim of its own success: In 1925, when largely due to Klan lobbying, Congress enacted the immigration quota law, Klan membership plummeted from millions to the few die-hard racist bigots it retains today. That is why there were no KKK 78s made after about 1924. Still, it makes me smile to imagine the Wolverines, or better yet King Oliver's band, sitting with "The 100% Americans" in the hallway outside the Gennett studio, all awaiting their turn to cut records.

-Brad Kay

Posted on Nov 17, 2005, 3:03 PM

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